21 November 2014

Australia's Few and the Battle Of Britain - Kristen Alexander

For as long as books are written about aviation there will always be books about the Battle of Britain.  It is perhaps the one enduring ‘household name’ from the war.  Indeed, even its ‘stars’ – The Few, Churchill, Dowding, Bader, Spitfire, Hurricane – still roll off the tongue.  It must be considerably difficult, given so much has been written about this period of the war already, for an author to come up with a new angle that will be of sufficient interest to publishers and, of course, the target audience.  The key, however, is “The Few”.  The aircrew.  Every single one deserves to have his story told.  Many have.  Many haven’t.

Such was the impact of the RAF’s victory against the odds that the campaign still resonates with astounding clarity.  It is a popularity that has seen myths and tales repeated until they are accepted as fact before, thankfully, being debunked through good old-fashioned historical research.  This research, and the continuing interest in the subject matter, has ensured documents are re-discovered, or re-interpreted, and crash sites continue to be found.

The household names are such because, for the most part, they endured.  They added to their achievements beyond that summer of 1940 and provided future biographers and researchers with enough material to generate countless volumes of work.  Those who survived had a life after the Battle.  They had a voice with which to tell their own story.  What, then, of those who did not make it?  How can their voice be heard when, perhaps, it is hidden safely away in a shoebox in the cupboard of a still grieving widow or relative?  For many they are simply a name on a plaque or on a headstone.  A pilot of the Battle of Britain.

What was he like?  Why did he fly?  Was he married?  Who and what did he love?  Where did he come from?  Someone always remembers and that is how the lost are heard.  In the case of this book, realisation came before remembrance.  The author became inquisitive about the Australian involvement in the Battle after reading one of H.E. Bates’ classic works.  There followed a journey of discovery that produced astounding access to the personal papers and records of eight men who flew in the Battle of Britain and who are certainly not household names.  The result is a perfect blend of military and personal biography.  Now these young men have a voice again.

Crossman, Glyde, Holland, Hughes, Kennedy, Millington, Sheen and Walch.  All were Australians in the RAF.  Some learned to fly at Point Cook.  Others in England.  Some became aces.  Some earned the DFC.  One survived.

As expected, there is a lot of combat but these sequences are, as much as possible, told in the pilot’s words through snippets from logbooks and combat reports and judiciously selected comments from diaries and other musings.  This is, of course, what we expect of a book about the Battle of Britain.  What is expertly woven into the narrative, however, is exquisite detail of the personal lives of the men – their thoughts when on station, the evident tension experienced as time passed and fatigue grew and, most importantly, their experiences when not on duty.  Here we really learn who these men were. 

The most valuable material is, however, in the pre-war/pre-Battle narrative.  Logbooks and diaries are expected sources when writing about pilots in combat.  Discovering their lives before their greatest achievements requires a much more personal approach and a desire to tell the whole story and not just the exciting stuff.  The result of such in-depth research and analysis, lovingly so in each respect, is an understanding beyond anything official records will ever provide.  There is a reason why Kennedy never smiled in photographs, for example.  Yes, there is some reading between the lines but, given the extent of the source material at hand, it is very much an educated, informed and perceptive interpretation.

All eight men come to life as their lives are laid bare. The reader develops an affinity with each to the point where the losses are keenly felt.  Hughes, a phenomenally aggressive (Point Cook might still bear the scars!) and successful pilot and flight leader, particularly got under my skin as he built the foundation of a loving relationship and potential future family (he was, of course, not the only one to find love while overseas). The progressive losses set-up the final chapters as the stories do not end as seven men are shot down.  They leave behind families and friends who struggle to accept their shining light has gone.  This is where the writing really benefits from the author’s unsurpassed ‘eye for the personal’, as I like to call it, developed in her earlier works (Clive Caldwell Air Ace and Jack Davenport Beaufighter Leader).  While the entire book is written with emotion and caring, the closing chapters are almost heartbreaking as each family unit comes to terms, more or less, with their loss over the decades that followed the war.  The immediate reaction by colleagues and loved ones to each death is recorded in the main ‘action’ chapters but the Battle moves on and, of course, so must the narrative.  The last few chapters, however, are a delicately and expertly assembled section of the book that serves to remind us that these men left so much behind.

Such sublime content deserves an equally well-crafted package to be presented in. As much as this is the author’s coming of age as an aviation history writer, the publisher has gone above and beyond in ensuring this book is well presented. Indeed, the sheer presence of this beautiful hardback demands attention on the shelf.  The hardcovers replicate the dust cover artwork and prove there is more to life than dark cloth and gold-embossed text.  The pages are clean and crisp, the text is (justified!) the perfect size for easy reading and the photo section, cut down from a large number of images the author had collected, happily focuses on personal and intimate images of the men rather than stock photos of Spitfires and Hurricanes etc.  The effort put in to the design and layout is evident.  Someone at NewSouth really understood what the book is all about.  Add the professional notes and index and we have an example from the very pinnacle of book design.

If I’m honest, and that’s what ABR is all about, I tend to steer away from books on the Battle and prefer to hunt down those from lesser known campaigns, battles, squadrons and theatres.  That summer of 1940, however, is what I cut my teeth on when I first ‘discovered’ the world of Second World War aviation.  It’s always there, in various forms, on my shelves, online or, most of the time, at a local bookshop.  Why then, in this world of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Battle of Britain books, and with the 75th anniversary just around the corner, would you buy this book over the others?  The question really should be “why wouldn’t you?”  From cover to cover it is the perfect tribute to eight Australian pilots and, hands down, the best-presented ‘package’ I have seen in a while.  It can be tricky, as the narrative changes to another ‘character’, to keep abreast with who’s who but this is really only experienced early on before the reader gets to ‘know’ each budding pilot.  The timelines of all eight are well managed and I hate to think of the headaches weaving them all together must have caused.  At a little over 400 pages of narrative, notes, bibliography and index, you’d think this would be a longish read but it flows so nicely, and there is always something to discover on the next page, that progress is swift.

Eight men have finally had their stories told.  It couldn’t have been done better.  I am bloody glad to have read Australia’s Few and the Battle of Britain.  I am bloody glad to have it on my shelf.

NewSouth Publishing 2014
ISBN 9-781742-234151

April 30, 2015 - Now available through Pen & Sword in the UK!

07 November 2014

Chocks away, release brakes

Hi everyone, it's been a while!

For those of you who don't know, since my last post we've moved back to Melbourne and I am in my third week of Daddy day care! We're still unpacking and the modem took five days to find hence why things have taken some time to get back to something resembling normality.  The books are unpacked and on the shelves!

There's lots of books to talk about, and I'll get there, but, in the meantime, if you read Flightpath magazine there will be, at most, six of my short reviews in the next issue that is due out in time for Christmas.  With luck the reviews might help in the Christmas present decision-making process ... or just add more titles to wish lists.

Self-publishers have been a bit of a focus on ABR of late. I have a lot of respect for all authors but those who self-publish really strike a chord with me so I'll take this opportunity to give another tip of the hat to new friends Chris Keltie (Riding In The Shadow Of Death), Andrew Porrelli and Simon Hepworth (Striking Through Clouds, the No. 514 Sqn war diary available in the UK and Australia, ask me about Australian sales) and John Hooton (One Life Left). It is always exciting when a new book arrives but these guys have gone above and beyond to get these stories out there.  The books themselves are very attractive items too.

Speaking of new books, the kids and I visited the RAAF Museum at Point Cook a couple of weeks ago. The museum shop sells some good titles and I managed to pick up three (and then another four five days later...). I had been after two of the first three (Air-To-Air by Chris Rudge and Kittyhawk Pilots by Cyril Ayris) for close to a decade and, happily, they were priced affordably (and realistically). It's a good reminder that your local museum can have some gems for sale ... and your money certainly goes to a good cause (I had a similar experience when Paul Sortehaug's The Wild Winds jumped in to my hands at the RNZAF Museum in 2010!). That said, I still regret not buying Kittyhawk Pilots from Cyril Ayris (and not to mention his cohort's, Stan Watt, Wing Over And Dive) in 2006!

Some of our favourite publishers are already announcing new books for 2015. Fighting High is leading the way with the covers of Into The Dark and Thunder Bird In Bomber Command (the new Sean Feast title) already released (check out the new charity book too - Coming Home, One Hundred Years of Housing Heroes) and Pen & Sword will be releasing the UK edition of Kristen Alexander's latest, and very welcome, Australia's Few and the Battle of Britain. I'll be surprised if they produce as good a book as New South did for the Australian edition. It is a superb work from cover to cover.  Norwegian Tor Idar Larsen will also have his new solo effort, Mosquito Attack!, published by Fonthill early next year. Norwegian Mossie pilot anyone?

Still to come in 2014 is Steve Brew's second volume of his No. 41 Sqdn history (Blood, Sweat And Courage) that will also come out through Fonthill. Work on strength building now as it'll be a massive book as Steve covers the squadron's history from the start of the war through to July 1942.  Go to your local hardware store, or remove some cross-members from your bed, as you will need something to shore up your bookshelf when this one arrives!

I recently 'discovered' a new book in the latest Allen & Unwin military newsletter.  While the expected WW1 titles ruled the roost I was surprised to see several WW2 PoW-based books due for release shortly.  Already available in the UK, Peter Tunstall's The Last Escaper has only just been released in Australia.  I fear it may get lost in the Christmas rush, and the general focus on WW1, but this must surely be one of the last books to be penned by an aircrew veteran and that lifts it above the accolades it is already receiving for being a quality read.

Stepping forward in time again to 2015 and we have the re-release of a giant.  The third edition of Kenneth Wynn's legendary Men of the Battle of Britain will issue forth to a grateful world on June 30 and will be one of the aircrew book highlights of the year as the 75th anniversary of the Battle is commemorated.  What other books shall we see on this important anniversary? 

I've probably forgotten some other news but keep an eye on ABR and be sure to let me know of anything I have missed so we can get news of these stories and books out to as many people as possible.